I visited Calgary in early October and it was surprisingly cold. How cold you asked? It was snowing the morning we woke up and the entire city center was covered in snow.
Many visitors head to Banff (which I will introduce in later posts) once they landed in Calgary. In fact, Alberta’s majestic landscape goes further than Banff. To go off the beaten track, there are some beautiful locations in the south of Alberta worth exploring. For example, the Waterton Lakes or the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Moreover, Drumheller is an enigmatic outpost of time in the dinosaur country of the Red Deer River around 140 kilometers northeast of Calgary. Covered with rugged red rocks in American badland, it is a major excavation site of dinosaurs. Everything in the town, practically, speaks of the area’s dinosaur legacy.
How to get around:
It was a pretty easy drive from Calgary to Drumheller (it’s only about 2 hours away and except the snow) We didn’t plan much getting around Drumheller, but you know know. It doesn’t matter. We just grabbed a guide map and it has already highlighted a list of major points of interest in Drumheller. And since the entire development is built along the Red Deer River, it’s impossible to get lost driving along the major highways and check out these checkpoints from one to another. The Drumheller Valley has two scenic loops – Loop 1 covers the north part of Drumheller that includes North Dinosaur Trail – Bleriot Ferry – South Dinosaur Trail; and Loop 2 covers (duh~) the south part in the Helmet of Wayne that includes highway 10X – Secondary Highway 569 – Highway 10. We only spent a day there and we planned to return to Calgary in the afternoon – we only stopped by a few key sites in Drumheller (including Royal Tyrrell Museum, of course.).
- Horseshoe Canyon and Horsethief Canyon for the badland’s lunar lanscapes
- Dinosaur Trail drive and explore the points of interests
- Royal Tyrrell Museum for the dinosaur specimens
- Hoodoo Trail drive and explore the unique rock formation
- Coal Mines Tours and learn about its mining past
World’s Largest Dinosaur
The landmark is a fiberglass and steel Tyrannosaurus rex that is 26-meter tall. Apparently, there is no better choice than having a giant T-Rex to grab visitor’s attention? The Dinosaur is located in the town center and it is an important checkpoint because this is where the Drumheller Valley Tourist information Center is. This is the first location we visited for the map and some coffee.
The T-Rex also features a viewing area in the mouth. It was a cloudy day and we had somewhere else to go, we didn’t climb to the top. Off we go!
Atlas Coal Mine
While Drumheller is a famous site of paleontology, it is, therefore, rich in fossil fuel.
In 1884, that hunt for the fuel in the nation began in earnest. That year, the Geological Survey of Canada sent Joseph Tyrrell to explore the area’s mineral resources, specifically coal deposits. On his historic sojourn, not only did Tyrrell’s discoveries launch the dinosaur fossil boom, but his discovery of the largest coal deposits in North America soon ignited the Great Drumheller Coal Boom. After the first coal mine in the Drumheller Valley opened in 1911, thousands of men flocked to the new boomtowns of Newcastle, Drumheller, Nacmine, Ariel, Wayne, Rosedale, Cambria, Willow Creek, Arcadia and East Coulee seeking work and adventure. There are coal mines in the area and they have now ceased operations. The Atlas Coal Mine was among the earliest and most successful ventures in the Drumheller Valley. The coal mine is not far away from the Hoodoos. The Atlas Coal Mine was known for its innovation, mechanization, and clever marketing. At its peak, the Atlas Coal Mine employed over 300 people. The Patrick family-owned mines extracted nearly 8 million tons of coal – more than any other company, and nearly 20% of the Drumheller Valley’s entire production total.
The Atlas Coal Mine national historic Site is the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and is home to the nation’s last wooden tipple. We didn’t enter the mines due to time limitation (and my fear of tight spaces and tunnels – yeah, what do you expect from a coal mine, folks), yet we could still see the coal belts, buildings, and structures from the entrance and got a hint of how it worked back in the 20s. In fact, the entire coal mine looks like an abandoned ruin, especially in the cold, and a little bit freaky.
The Star Mine is another major Coal Mine in Drumheller. Star Mine CollierStar was purchased by mining tycoon J.N. Murray in 1913 and used a rather dangerous and back-breaking mining method by handpicking the coal. Until the late 1920s, coal was hauled across the river by aerial cable, to a tipple located on the town side of the Red Deer River. The coal was then sorted by a steam-powered belt-driven shaker screen, sized and loaded into boxcars destined for Calgary and Saskatoon. The Star Mine’s capacity was 200 tons in 8 hours, all extracted by hand.
During the mid-1930s the CPR extended its line from Cambria to the mine entrance, thus eliminating the need for the aerial tramway. The aerial was then converted to a swinging bridge for the miners to cross to work. The Star Mine was one of the Valley’s longest-running mines, operating at the same location for 44 years evolving from dangerous pick & shovel mining to locomotives and mechanized mining. After the Star Mine was closed and abandoned in 1957, the miner’s pedestrian bridge became a popular tourist attraction.
The Drumheller hoodoos
The Drumheller Hoodoos are geological wonders that have stood watch at the mouth of Willow Creek Coulee for thousands of years, bearing witness to the people and events that shaped the Red Deer River valley, and Alberta.
Culturally, the word “Hoodoo” originates from the Hausa language of West Africa, meaning “to arouse resentment, produce retribution.” Hoodoo was a distinct magic practice introduced to North America in the 18th century, although different in nature than the more familiar voodoo. Aborigines used “hoodoo” to refer to evil, supernatural forces. Some believed hoodoos were giants turned to stone by the Great Spirit due to their evil deeds.
Scientifically, Hoodoos are eroded pillars of soft sandstone rock, topped with a resilient cap. The cap protects the softer rock underneath from eroding as quickly as the surrounding rock. Once the cap deteriorates, the pillar is more vulnerable to the elements and subjected to rapid deterioration.
We visited the Hoodoos Trail during the low season (I believe), and so we basically had the entire site to ourselves. It was wonderful to explore the area, take pictures, and appreciate the beauty of Hoodoos with some peace and quiet. Sadly, the natural wonders, like many others, are getting smaller and smaller due to human traffic, graffiti, and vandalism that have shortened the lifespan of these geologic wonders. The Hoodoos have profound meaning and values to the natives culturally and to nature geologically. It is important for visitors to respect the natural wonders and stay out of the protected area. Watch out for jagged rocks, cacti, and thorny plants while walking on the pathways throughout the site.
The Little Church
We dropped by the Little Church before the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It is a small “house” that is basically the size of a movable toilet stand at the corner on the road in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, I was not aware of this church before my trip – yet I found this attraction quite meaningful.
The church is rebuilt in 1991 and is truly a “little” church with only six chairs; but the purpose of building this church is sincere. It aims to offer faithfuls a place to pray and think. It has some beautiful details, too; The glass windows, and writings on the walls. At the front of the church, it says “Peace to All Who Enter”, and on the back of the front door, it says “Grace be with you…”
Horsethief and Horseshoe Canyon
While there are some more places to see like the Dinosaur Trail, Orkney Viewpoint, Bleriot Ferry, and Dinosaur Provincial Park in the north, we only had time to drive around the area after our trip in the museum. The Horsethief Canyon, though, looks quite different when it’s covered in snow. Stories have told that there were thousands of horses kept along with the mountain range along the Red Deer River in old times, and horses always went missing when they ran to the Horsethief Canyon. That’s how the place got its name from early settlers
Both Horsethief and Horseshoe Canyon is a typical “badland” landscape in North America – steep slopes, dry land, minimal vegetation, and lack of substantial regolith. Such features serve as a perfect backdrop of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.
Royal Tyrrell Museum
The Royal Tyrrell Museum displays one of the world’s largest gathering of complete dinosaur skeletons with some 50 in the collection and nearly 100,000 specimens of various types and sizes. In fact, this is the only museum of paleontology and dinosaur fossils. It all began after the discovery of an Albertosaurus by Joseph Tyrrell in the year of 1884. After that, more and more dinosaur fossils were unearthed, making Alberta one of the most important regions in the world about the ancient reptiles. Established in 1985, the museum displayed more than 35 types of dinosaur fossils and attracted millions of visitors annually.
After a nice lunch in the Museum Cafeteria, we began our walk in the museum and it’s much bigger than I expected. The exhibition began with an introduction to the environment of Alberta 69 million years ago (the Cretaceous Alberta), where only theropods existed and moved across river channels. Fossils of these fascinating creatures were later unearthed in the area and gave evidence to the ancient history about lives before humans.
We learned how dinosaurs lived and interacted based on their bone structure, tooth marks, and healed fractures – indicating the never-ending circle of life – a battle for food, dominance, and territory.
As mentioned, Albertosaurus was the first discovered and they shared this rugged landscape with a variety of different kinds of dinosaurs, including small theropods, horned and armored dinosaurs, and duck-billed dinosaurs. Later, many well-known species like Pachyrhinosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops that stalked North America over 65 million years ago. Many of the reptiles are named after places in Alberta, like the Albertosaurus and Edmontosaurus (a hadrosaur).
I am not exactly a huge dinosaurs fan, and I do not know much about dinosaurs, yet I find the exhibits extremely interesting. Look closely, the dinosaurs (some are cast and original, some are just cast mounts) are so life-like and I couldn’t believe that the dinosaurs have been buried underground for millions of years! It’s an educational place for everyone to get a taste of paleontology right where it all happened millions of years ago.